01 How to build multicultural teams with clear communication.
Back to Babel: Overcoming
Communication Challenges in
02 How to build multicultural teams with clear communication.
Lost in translation? Getting past communication barriers within your multicultural team
The most common challenges
Requirements for successful intercultural communication
Groups that adapt achieve the most success 04
03 How to build multicultural teams with clear communication.
Lost in translation? Getting past
communication barriers within your
Within the workplace, multicultural teams have become
the norm, with team members bringing different values,
assumptions, and patterns of behavior to the group. To
work effectively within such environments and maximize
knowledge transfer, it has become increasingly important
to cultivate a global mindset and understand the impact of
cultural differences on everyday business practices.
This white paper will explore the dynamics of intercultural
communication, the importance of cultural awareness with
regard to business practices, and strategies for managing
and working within multicultural teams.
The most common challenges
Language doesn’t just occur through syntax, grammar,
and the spoken or written word. It’s a flexible method
of communication that incorporates gesture, shared
understanding, humor, and -- most importantly -- another
person to receive and respond to that communication.
Multicultural teams run into trouble when the individuals
involved are unable to identify the differences that exist
within their own and the other members’ communication
styles. These include:
The language barrier: This is the most obvious. How do
you communicate with someone who doesn’t speak a word
of the same language as you? Or only a few basic phrases?
The contextual challenge: What does a given
message mean within the context of the other interactions
and conversations occurring before, simultaneously or in
The objective: Does the message matter most, or is the
delivery more important? Are truth and transparency a must,
or does it depend on the circumstances?
The cultural lens: How does an individual from a different
culture interpret meaning? How can certain behaviors or
actions differ from one culture to another?
Here, from the Harvard Business Review, are examples of
how these differing communication styles can create conflict:
A Latin American member of a multicultural consulting group
was frustrated with his inability to communicate effectively.
He told the Review, “Many times I felt that because of
the language difference, I didn’t have the words to say
some things that I was thinking. I noticed that when I went
to these interviews with the U.S. guy, he would tend to
lead the interviews, which was understandable but also
disappointing, because we are at the same level. I had very
good questions, but he would take the lead.”
04 How to build multicultural teams with clear communication.
In another instance, an American manager interfacing
with a client in Japan did not realize the Japanese norm
with regard to discussion: “In Japan, they want to talk and
discuss. Then we take a break and they talk within the
organization. They want to make sure that there’s harmony
in the rest of the organization. One of the hardest lessons for
me was when I thought they were saying yes but they just
meant ‘I’m listening to you.’”
When the American sent a direct email pointing out flaws
that existed in the system, she violated a cultural norm
and was isolated from the discussions – both socially and
physically. Although she was correct and the error was
resolved, the Japanese team members did not appreciate
This is not to say that anyone within a given culture behaves
the same way, but in order to communicate effectively, it is
important to understand how someone’s background may
affect his or her assumptions and perception of what is
Requirements for successful intercultural
In multicultural teams, it is not enough to rely on language
skills alone – though those will certainly help. Rather,
individuals, managers and HR must be versed in how to
read body language, how to understand gestures, how
to acknowledge cultural assumptions and how to avoid
confrontation. To do so requires three attributes:
Curiosity: Take the time to learn the language, even if
it’s only a few basic terms and phrases, and make an
effort to understand cultural norms.
Respect: Address team members formally until trust
is gained and be mindful of time differences during
conference calls or virtual meetings.
Empathy: Speak slowly and enunciate, don’t be taken
off guard by unexpected answers, and ask questions to
understand what the person means.
For example, the ability to schedule longer meetings to
accommodate different communication styles shows respect
and empathy. Asking questions and admitting your own
ignorance shows curiosity and deference. Additionally, the
ability to laugh at your own shortcomings and mistakes can go
a long way toward easing tensions.
Groups that adapt achieve
the most success
There are several ways to resolve intercultural disputes within
a team, such as managerial intervention and dividing team
members into subgroups. However, these are not ideal. The
goal is to accomplish whatever business objectives exist
05 How to build multicultural teams with clear communication.
as efficiently and thoroughly as possible and not stall over
communication issues, stereotypes, or stubbornness.
When there are clashes, the most effective way to address
them is to first identify why they’re occurring. If they’re the
result of cultural assumptions or a lack of cultural literacy, it
may be necessary for the group to set aside time to discuss
this, and how to improve communication. Individual efforts to
set the group on track can also be effective.
In one instance, for example, a team of Spanish, American,
and Korean members stalled in discussions when the
Korean members used their native tongue to hold private
However, the Spanish members counteracted that issue by
speaking solely in Spanish at the same time. They were able
to communicate their frustrations, but in an indirect way, as
per Korean custom, and salvage the deal.
Another case involved an American engineer working with
Irish and Israeli members. The Israelis had a confrontational,
argumentative communication style, which intimidated
the other members at first. But the American realized that
the Israelis were acting based on cultural norms, not out
of disrespect, so he was able to adjust accordingly and
continue being productive.
The ability to work within multicultural teams is becoming
increasingly necessary within the workplace. By
understanding cultural norms, maintaining respect, and
demonstrating the willingness to learn, multicultural teams
have a far greater chance of successfully accomplishing their
06 How to build multicultural teams with clear communication.
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